When talks about building a new arena downtown got serious a decade or so ago, my first thought was, “What about the Coliseum?” A lot of memories were made in that building, but when Mayor Don Iveson pushed to demolish it last month, it wasn’t nostalgia I was feeling; it was frustration.
It’s a cruel piece of irony that at the same time the city got around to investing money in the revitalization of Alberta Avenue, our then-mayor was already cooking up a plan that would see the Coliseum, the symbolic eastern boundary of the district, rendered obsolete. And now, as that financial support is about to end (before any of the promised streetscape improvements from 78 Street to Wayne Gretzky Drive have been delivered), the mayor tried to have the Coliseum demolished.
It’s true a shuttered arena at the end of the Avenue Initiative project will do nothing towards continued revitalization, which is still very much a work in progress. Yet, neither will a fenced-off vacant lot.
For years, concerns expressed about the future of the building were dismissed. Council not only agreed to finance a new downtown arena, they also essentially handed Daryl Katz a veto over what could be done with the old one. But just because Katz will not allow anything sports- or entertainment-related to go in the old barn, moving to demolish it before alternate uses were truly explored was hasty and short-sighted.
Northlands has agreed to operate K-Days and Farm Fair for five more years, so we’ve got breathing room to look at the entire site. The Expo Centre is only eight years old and the city now owns the $47 million debt that Northlands carried on the building, so it’s not going anywhere soon. What can be done to support it? Boutique hotels? Retail and restaurants?
This past summer, the Coliseum Station Area Redevelopment Plan (ARP) community stakeholder committee was appointed, presumably to answer these questions. They were set to start meeting in September 2017 but, at press time, had not yet done so.
Following the decision to close the Coliseum, there were no opportunities for community members to be consulted about what might come next and no invitation for the business or community development sectors to bring forward ideas.
With all the talk about improved citizen and community engagement, one really needs to wonder just what the heck is going on here. Fortunately, council resisted the mayor’s efforts and the building was given a reprieve. Administration will report back with options in March.
The fact is, we have many options that might work. Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens has seen its lower floors occupied by a massive Loblaw’s store. The neighbourhoods around the Coliseum lie in a food desert. Is hiving off a portion of the Coliseum for a large grocery store a viable option? Perhaps approaching the university to discuss working with Northlands and the city to develop an agriculture-focused innovation hub would be another idea. Non-profit community organizations are always looking for affordable space; could part of the building be used for a community services hub?
The future of the Coliseum needs to be assessed as part of the Coliseum Station ARP, including plans for repurposing the Northlands site south of 118 Avenue. Demolishing the building should not be the first step in that process.
The fledgling Edmonton Community Development Corporation focuses on land development and neighbourhood improvement. Perhaps it can play a role in development that will result in continued improvements along 118 Avenue.
According to a 2016 Nichols Applied Management study, there would be little impact to the businesses in the vicinity of the site if no redevelopment were to occur, but there could be substantial negative impacts to the value of nearby residences “which may serve to create or exacerbate existing socio‐economic challenges for residents.”
Citizens who live and work around Alberta Avenue know full well what those continued challenges are and that gains made to date are tenuous. With the Avenue Initiative winding down, we need a comprehensive strategic plan to deal with the numerous problem properties and vacant lots that plague our neighbourhoods and main street, not the creation of a massive new one.
Featured Image: What ends up being decided for the Coliseum will have a huge impact on the surrounding neighbourhoods. | Rebecca Lippiatt
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